On Sunday, I went to the woods. To get there, I had to walk along the edge of a just-plowed field, soft and uneven. At the back of the pond the field slopes sharply toward a creek that runs just beyond the property line, and my shoes began sinking into not-quite-mud. I ran to keep from being sucked in up to my ankles, gauging the size of the deer who had come before me by how far its hooves had sunk into the muck. The ground got solid again at the fencerow, barbed wire and rusted. I held it down with one foot and stepped across.
I went to the woods because it is close and quiet. I went to the woods because no one would know where I was. I went to the woods because I knew that my heart could breathe there. And my heart needed to catch its breath.
On Saturday, I’d driven across the state to, as we say in the South, bury a friend, though he wasn’t actually buried, but cremated. Brian was tall and strong. He had an Irishman’s red hair and blue eyes that danced with the impishness of a leprechaun. He wooed and won my friend Melissa with bike rides and camping trips and songs played on a guitar and, though I didn’t meet him until the day of their wedding, I knew right away that it was good. Very good.
They had three beautiful children they allowed me and a lot of other people to love. They made a life that was wide and inclusive. And then Brian got sick. Sick with the kind of illness for which people don’t set up Caring Bridge websites or organize blood drives. The kind of illness that you can’t see, but that is no less real for its invisibility. And despite good professional help and lots of love — oh, so much love — Brian’s life unraveled.
Sometimes people get better. Sometimes they don’t. Brian didn’t.
On Sunday, there were a lot of fallen trees in the woods. A lot of wind, a lot of rain over the winter had been hard on the old ones, the diseased ones. Most of them looked as though they had just sighed and laid themselves down. I walked down their lengths, holding my arms out to balance myself, bouncing just a little to feel the degree of rottenness in each.
There was one, though, that had splintered off about four feet from the ground. I walked over to peer inside the trunk. At first it looked just like the others — the layers of what I think Mrs. Foy called xylem all soft and dry, flaky like a Kit Kat — but then I noticed that in the center there remained a small circle of heartwood. A modest ring of golden sap, glinting in the late afternoon sun that poked its way through the canopy. I leaned over to sniff the sweet tar scent. I stuck my finger into the cavity to feel the glassy hardness.
I couldn’t help smiling. The pine tree had given in to the wind and the rain, but there remained, deep within it, a true heart.
At the memorial service, a friend of the family played the guitar and sang “The House at Pooh Corner,” a song that Brian had played and sung for his two little girls over and over as a lullaby. In the quiet of the chapel, the sweet notes lifted up into the high ceiling and settled back over the heads of those gathered: “But I've wandered much further today than I should, and I can't seem to find my way back to the wood.”
Sometimes people find their way back. Sometimes they don’t. But standing there — in my woods, on Sunday, remembering my friend — I realized this: Wandering away, getting lost, forgetting the way home is never the end when the beginning was a true heart.